LENS, France, June 26, (RTRS): Portugal relied on one, late, moment of class to grab their first victory at Euro 2016 and move into the last eight with a 1-0 win over Croatia despite failing to hit the target for almost two hours and struggling to build any cohesive attacks.
With both two teams oozing talent, fans were expecting fireworks in a game pitting the goal-scoring prowess of Ronaldo against the play-making abilities of fellow Champions League winner and Real Madrid team mate Luka Modric of Croatia.
Instead they got to see two hours of cagey, nervy football with only one shot on target amid some shocking finishing until mercurial Ricardo Quaresma lit up the stadium with his winner three minutes from the end of extra time.
All eyes were on Ronaldo but for almost all the game he was nowhere to be seen, shut out by two and three Croats at all times.
Winger Nani was equally subdued, trying to find some space but ending up crashing against a wall of defenders every time.
Yet the best talent finds a way to make an impact, all that was needed was one spark, and they got it with teenager Renato Sanches, the poster boy of Portugal’s new generation, launching a quick break to feed Nani on the left.
As always, Ronaldo dug deep into his reserves to charge up in support on the right and Nani picked him out with a clever, threaded low cross. Ronaldo’s shot from a tight angle was blocked by keeper Danijel Subasic’s quick reflexes but Quaresma, brought on in the 87 minute, was on hand to nod-in on the rebound and set up a quarter-final with Poland.
It was not supposed to be Quaresma’s game and certainly not his tournament with coach Fernando Santos having hauled him off after he failed to follow tactical instructions in their 0-0 group-stage draw against Austria, berating him in public.
The 32-year-old, who made the squad after reviving his career with a second spell at Turkey’s Besiktas, was long seen by critics as having failed to make the most of his talent in a topsy-turvy career punctuated by tantrums.
Raised at the Sporting Lisbon youth academy at the same time as Ronaldo, many felt then that Quaresma was the more likely of the pair to set the sport alight.
Instead, Ronaldo went on to become three-times world player of the year and scoop endless trophies while Quaresma’s misfortunes included being kicked out of Besiktas for indiscipline and missing out on three successive World Cups.
However, enjoying another revival, the winger scored twice and set up two more as Portugal beat Estonia in a Euro warm-up two days before the start of the tournament.
Quaresma was again left on the bench on Saturday before making the most of a brief substitute appearance that will live long in the memory of Portuguese fans.
Croatia coach Ante Cacic lamented his fancied side’s failure to score against bogey team Portugal in their 1-0 Euro 2016 last 16 defeat on Saturday as Ricardo Quaresma’s extra time header sent them out.
The match was a turgid affair and appeared set for penalties before Danijel Subasic parried Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike into the path of substitute Quaresma who made no mistake from point-blank range three minutes from the end of extra time.
Croatia enjoyed 17 shots to their opponents’ six, but failed to register a single effort on target though they did hit the post through Ivan Perisic’s header just before Portugal scored.
“Everything was perfect except we didn’t score,” Cacic told reporters, “so we weren’t successful in attack.”
Croatia scored five goals in the group stage but have failed to find the net against Portugal in all four of their matches, losing every one.
“We played really well and were controlling the match,” he added, “we conceded no chances, except the last one.
“They scored in the 117th minute, I congratulate them. They kept us far from goal and that’s why they scored from the counter-attack.
“That was our mistake and we were punished,” Cacic added, “but that’s football and many times the best team doesn’t win.”
Croatia’s odds of winning the tournament were slashed after they came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 and top Group D, but they failed to produce a dynamic performance against Portugal.
“I am really sad as we had a great chance,” added Cacic. “The draw was perfect for us, we knew if we beat Portugal we had an open path.”
Portugal now advance to a quarter-final date with Poland, who beat Switzerland on penalties earlier on Saturday, in Marseille on Thursday.